Trade unionist, Chairperson of the African Textile Workers’ Union, 1956 Treason Trialist, President of SACTU, Robben Island prisoner, Member of the ANC’s National Executive Council and its Revolutionary Council and recipient of the Order of
Stephen Dlamini was born in 30 November 1913 in Natal (KwaZulu-Natal). As a factory worker, Dlamini became a trade union member and rose through the ranks, ultimately becoming the Chairperson of the African Textile Workers’ Union in the 1950s. Together with Billy Nair, Dlamini also ran trade union classes in Durban in the early 1950s, empowering workers with trade union rights and political education.
At the inaugural conference of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), held on 5 March 1955 in Johannesburg, Dlamini was elected to its National Executive Committee (NEC). SACTU emerged out of 19 trade unions representing over 20 000 workers. From the beginning, SACTU committed itself to playing a dual role of fighting both economic and political struggles. For him, the exploitation of a worker was intrinsically linked to the oppression of black people.
Dlamini was an accused in the Treason Trial of 1956 until charges against him were withdrawn in late 1958. In 1960, he went into hiding and helped to organise demonstrations against the detention of Congress leaders. In 1961, he was an organiser for the All in Africa Conference held in Pietermaritzburg and the May “stay-at-home” campaign called by the ANC.
In the early 1960s, Dlamini was detained under the notorious 90-day detention. Three years later, he was imprisoned on Robben Island. On the Island, Dlamini, Govan Mbeki and Harry Gwala started a study group for young political prisoners to whom they taught Marxist labour theory. After his release from prison, he was banished to a rural reserve. In 1967, Dlamini was elected Honorary President of SACTU, which was in exile at the time.
Around 1971, together with Bheki (Harold) Nxasana (Acting Secretary), Joseph Mdluli (Treasurer) and Dlamini (Chairperson), they formed a committee to revive SACTU. They decided to write a pamphlet informing workers of their plight. This resulted in workers flocking to them in spite of this committee having very limited resources.
In 1975, the police arrested a large number of people in Natal. They broke up the Natal Midlands-based underground command, after obtaining information from recruits arrested at the Swaziland border. Dlamini was also arrested in this round up. The police severely assaulted Dlamini but he refused to provide them with any information, thus ensuring the safety of his comrades.
In 1976, Dlamini left South Africa and rejoined SACTU in exile as its last elected president, immediately throwing himself into the work of SACTU abroad.
In exile, he participated in the work of the ANC and became a member of its National Executive Committee (NEC). Between 1980 and 1983, he served on the Revolutionary Council (RC) of the ANC that was chaired by the Oliver Tambo.
When the ANC was unbanned in 1990, he returned from exile and was part of meetings where it was formally decided not to re-establish SACTU inside the country, in the interest of having one country and one federation, because by then the Congress of South African Trade Unions had been formed. Stephen Dlamini died a few days into a democratic South Africa on 29 April 1994.
In April 2010, President Jacob Zuma posthumously conferred the Order of Luthuli (Gold) on him for his exceptional contribution to the struggle for liberation, workers’ rights and a non-racial and non-sexist South Africa.
* Other sources state 1 January 1913
• SADET. (2008). The road to democracy: South Africans telling their stories Volume 1, 1950 ”“ 1970. Tsehai Publishers, Hollywood, California
• Gerhart G.M. & Glaser C.L. ”“ p160 ”“ From Protest to Challenge Vol. 6 ”“ Challenge and Victory, 1980 ”“ 1990
• SADET (2006) The Road to Democracy in South Africa Volume 2 [1970 ”“ 1980] Unisa Press, Pretoria